Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Book Review: Look at the Birdie

(Downloaded from the Libby App and read on my I-Phone) Still devouring the miscellaneous works of Kurt Vonnegut, slowly working my way through all of his short stories. I should have read this collection of unpublished works before While Mortals Sleep since it was published first. This set of 14 stories is much darker in tone than Mortals. People get killed, disillusioned, framed and thrown in prison, and their nasty inner selves are exposed. The tone is set by the first story Confido in which a new-fangled doodad speaks your inner thoughts aloud to you and nearly ruins the inventor's family. Most of the tales are short and stabbing like knife wounds, the exception is Ed Luby's Key Club, a crime-soaked novella which reads like a nightmare noirish film script. An innocent couple is caught up in a web of danger when they leave a cheap tip for the titular club-owner, a mob boss. It's soaked with violence and sleaze, the resolution is ridiculous, but I had to keep reading it. Vonnegut had mastered the art of holding the reader by the proverbial throat and not letting go till the last sentence. Hall of Mirrors, Nice Little People and The Petrified Ants contain elements of sci-fi and fantasy with pointy edges. A Song for Selma returns to the whimsy of Vonnegut's other stories of a high-school band teacher and the joys and pain of teenage love. King and Queen of the Universe is a nice moral tale of the price of privilege and growing up. The collection is introduced with a letter from Vonnegut on his aims as a writer, offering an insight into his state of mind as he struggled to find his voice.

Monday, September 25, 2023

B'way Update: The Wiz Sets Dates and Theater

Melody A, Betts as Evillene (center)
in the revival of The Wiz, headed for Broadway.
Credit: Jeremy Daniel
The new production of The Wiz has found a Broadway theater and announced dates. The all-African-American cast will ease on down the road to the Marquis Theater after a national tour which just began at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater on Sept. 23. Previews at the Marquis begin March 29, 2024 for an April 17 opening. The touring cast will continue onto Broadway with Nellie Lewis as Dorothy, Deborah Cox (Jekyll and Hyde) as Glinda, Melody A. Betts (Waitress) as Aunt Em and Evillene, Kyle Lamar Freedman (A Strange Loop) as the Lion, Philip Johnson Richardson as the Tin Man, and Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow. Wayne Brady (Let's Make a Deal, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Kinky Boots) will play the Wiz on Broadway with Alan Mingo, Jr. taking on the title role for most of the tour.

Schele Williams directs this revival of the 1975 version of L. Frank Baum's beloved classic. (She will also be directing the Broadway production of the musical version of The Notebook.) Tony nominee Amber Ruffin (Some Like It Hot) writes additional material to William F. Brown's original book.  (I wonder if Ruffin will work in Brady's game-show background. Will the Wiz say, "Okay Dorothy, you brought me Evillene's broomstick. You can trade it in for the big box or what's behind the curtain.") Charlie Smalls' score won one of the show's seven 1975 Tony Awards and one of five Drama Desk Awards.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Recent Weekends

Two recent weekend fragments.

Labor Day Weekend: Stayed with friends in upstate NY finger lake district near Syracuse. The last time we were there, lots of things were closed because of COVID. So to make for it, I wanted to see what we had missed. 
Harriet Tubman's house
in Auburn, NY

Auburn, NY
: Harriet Tubman's House. Our guide spoke for an hour on Harriet's life, explaining the movie was 75 percent accurate. Then we saw the actual house, but did not go inside because there was nothing in it. However, a second house on the property where Harriet ran a home for elderly people was resorted with furnishings of the era so we could go in.

The next day, I drove to Seneca Falls and visited the It's a Wonderful Life Museum. I loved all the artifacts from the film and bought a Clarence the Angel Christmas tree ornament. As noted in a previous blog, Seneca Falls is thought to be the inspiration for the beloved holiday classic. Frank Capra spent time there and may have heard the true story of an immigrant who jumped off the town bridge to save a woman from suicide by drowning--just as George Bailey saves Clarence the Angel. 

At the It's a Wonderful Life Museum
in Seneca Falls, NY

Friday, September 22, 2023

Off-B'way Update: Film/TV Faves in Madwomen

Jobeth Williams
A quartet of film and TV veterans will headline Madwomen of the West by Sandra Tsing Loh at the Actors Temple Theater with previews beginning Nov. 11 for a Dec. 11 opening for a run through Jan. 1, 2024. Caroline Aaron (21 Jump Street, Beyond the Sea), Golden Globe nominee Marilu Henner (Taxi, Evening Shade), Emmy winner Melanie Mayron (thirtysomething, Girlfriends), and Jobeth Williams (Poltergeist, The Big Chill) star under the direction of Thomas Caruso. The plot concerns four friends gathering at a Brentwood mansion for a surprise birthday brunch. 

Loh is the author of The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, selected by the New York Times' 100 Most Notable Books. Her previous book Mother on Fire is based on her solo theater piece about the Los Angeles school system. Her other solo shows include Aliens in America, Bad Sex with Bud Kemp, Sugar Plum Fairy, and I Worry.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Off-B'way Update: Iguana Revival with Eclectic Cast

La Femme Theater Productions will present an Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, directed by Emily Mann (Having Our Say, Execution of Justice). Previews begin Dec. 6 with a Dec. 17 opening for a limited run through Feb. 25, 2024 at the Irene Diamond Stage of the Pershing Square Signature Theater Center (this is not a Signature Theater Company production). The eclectic cast will be led by Emmy nominee Timothy Daly (Wings), Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent, Anna in the Tropics), Drama Desk nominee and SAG winner Lea DeLaria (Orange Is the New Black, POTUS, On the Town), Drama Desk winner and Tony nominee Austin Pendleton (The Minutes, Between Riverside and Crazy, The Little Foxes), and Jean Lichty (La Femme's productions of Williams' A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur and Horton Foote's The Traveling Lady). Mann also directed Rubin-Vega in the 2012 Broadway revival of Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Daphne Rubin-Vega and 
Tim Daly will star in
The Night of the Iguana.

The Night of the Iguana poses critical questions of faith and identity that are particularly relevant today as we navigate a paradoxically divided yet open world,” Lichty, executive director of La Femme, said in a statement. “Tennessee offers an answer by writing an epic that he described as ‘a play about love in its purest terms.'”

Iguana opened on Broadway in 1961 with Bette Davis, Margaret Leighton (Tony Award for Best Actress), and Patrick O'Neal, and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. The drama focuses on a defrocked priest at the end of his spiritual rope who has crash-landed at a rundown tourist spot in Acapulco, Mexico. There he encounters the lusty, widowed hotel owner, a traveling artist and her 92-year-old grandfather. John Huston's film version was released in 1964 with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, and Grayson Hall (Oscar nomination).

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Book Review: While Mortals Sleep

(Read on my I-phone on the Libby app) Still continuing the Vonnegut reading jag. This collection of previously unpublished stories is a fast, fun read. Like the pieces in Bagombo Snuff Box, they were written early in Vonnegut's career to sell to popular publication like Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies' Home Journal for casual entertainment in the days before mass media eliminated reading time. This group, the second posthumous collection following Look at the Birdie, has only two segments featuring elements of fantasy--Jenny, about a lonely traveling appliance salesman and his relationship with human-like refrigerator and The Epizootic, concerning an epidemic of suicide among young male breadwinners. The rest are neat little moral lessons with O. Henry ironic endings. They all have charm, but not the dark stinging wit which mark Vonnegut's novels. All the characters are sharply drawn in clear, quick strokes. I enjoyed the title story about a Scrooge-like newspaper editor forced to judge a Christmas light display contest. That one and the rest of the stories have relatively simple premises. A young war widow, ironically named Ruth, confronts her domineering mother-in-law. A model train enthusiast neglects his wife. Another widow develops a passionate fantasy life with a pen pal. Dave Eggers in the forward calls them mousetrap stories where the author traps the reader into a moral conclusion, as opposed to modern short stories which are more like photo-realism. Both genres have their place and can give pleasure.  

The only thing that bothered me about this volume is this: Does "unpublished" mean these stories were not published anywhere before, not even in magazines? There is no page listing where they might have originally appeared as there was in Bagombo which is subtitled "uncollected" as opposed to "unpublished."

Thursday, September 14, 2023

B'way Update: Uncle Vanya at LCT

Nicol Williamson and George C. Scott in
Uncle Vanya (1973)
Lincoln Center Theater will present the 11th Broadway production of Anton Chekhov's classic Uncle Vanya in a new translation by Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me). Drama Desk winner Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves, The Waverly Gallery) directs (she will also be staging Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate for Second Stage this season.) Previews begin April 2 at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater with an opening slated for April 24. No casting has been announced as of yet, but there will probably be some high-caliber stars attached. 

The play takes place on a country estate where Vanya and his niece Sonia's simple lives are upended when her pompous father and his glamorous young wife arrive for an extended stay. Vanya is a popular work on and Off-Broadway and on stages around the world. Another translation by Paul Schmidt
Heidi Schreck in her play
What the Constitution Means to Me.
Credit: Joan Marcus

starring David Cromer, Marin Ireland, Bill Irwin, and Will Brill played in a Manhattan loft for audiences of 40 this past summer and received rave reviews. Jay O. Sanders won a Drama Desk Award for playing the title tole in a 2018 production. Previous Broadway stagings have starred Derek Jacobi and Roger Rees (2000), Tom Courtney and James Fox (1995), Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott and Julie Christie (1973), and Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Margaret Leighton (1946). A film adaptation, Vanya on 42nd Street (1995), directed by Louis Malle, starred Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, and Lynn Cohen.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

B'way Update: Days of Wine and Roses; Boebert Booted from Beetlejuice

Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James
in Days of Wine and Roses at Atlantic
Theater Company.
Credit: Ahron R. Foster
Announcements of Broadway shows are coming in on an almost daily basis now. After news that Mary Jane, Water for Elephants and Lempicka (the latter announced via a casting call) were arriving next spring, a press release was issued today that Days of Wine and Roses, the musical version of JP Miller's 1962 film and 1958 teleplay about an alcoholic couple would be transferring to Broadway's Studio 54 in early 2024. Tony winner Kelli O'Hara and Tony nominee and Drama Desk winner Brian d'Arcy James will repeat their roles from the Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company production which ran from June 5 to July 16 of this year. The new musical features a book by Tony nominee Craig Lucas, score by Tony winner Adam Guettel, and direction by Tony nominee Michael Greif. Further casting will be announced. Previews begin Jan. 6 at Studio 54 with an opening announced for Jan. 28.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

B'way Update: Water for Elephants; Lempicka

Water for Elephants at the
Alliance Theater in Atlanta.
Credit: Matthew Murphy
The new musical version of Water for Elephants will be marching onto Broadway this spring, with previews set to begin Feb. 24, 2024 at the Imperial Theater and an opening is scheduled for March 21. Based on Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, Water features a book by three-time Tony nominee Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher) and a score by PigPen Theater Company. Tony nominee Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) directs. The world premiere engagement of the musical was held at Atlanta's Alliance Theater, opening in June of this year. 

The story concerns an aimless young man who jumps a moving train and finds himself caught up in the exciting world of a traveling circus. A 2011 film version starred Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. The production will feature seven circus performers who will make up a third of the cast. Capitalized at $25 million, Water is the biggest-budgeted show this Broadway season.

Monday, September 11, 2023

B'way Update: Rachel McAdams to Star in Mary Jane

Rachel McAdams will
star in Mary Jane
on Broadway.
Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight, The Notebook) will make her Broadway debut in Amy Herzog's Mary Jane, presented by Manhattan Theater Club as part of their season at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Previews begin April 2 with an opening date to be announced. The play follows the title character, a single mom, as she deals with the multiple responsibilities of her son's debilitating illnesses. Mary Jane premiered at Yale Repertory Theater in 2017 with Emily Donahue and Kathleen Chalfant. An Off-Broadway production followed the same year at New York Theater Workshop with Carrie Coon, Brenda Wehle, Susan Pourfur, and Liza Colon-Zayes. The play was named Best Play of the season by the New York Drama Critics Circle and won three Obie Awards. Anne Kaufman (The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Marvin's Room) who directed the Yale and NYTW versions, returns as stager.

Herzog was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her play 4000 Miles and last season her adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House played Broadway with Jessica Chastain. The author's version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People will also play Broadway next spring.

Mary Jane joins a growing number of 2023-24 Broadway productions which have been presented Off-Broadway in previous seasons. Others include Merrily We Roll Along, Harmony, Gutenberg! The Musical, Appropriate, and Prayer for the French Republic.
Carrie Coon and Susan Pourfar
in Mary Jane (2017)
Credit: Joan Marcus

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Book Review: A Man Without a Country

(Downloaded and read on the Libby App on my I-phone) Continuing with my Vonnegut binge, I ripped through this collection of short essays originally published in the small journal In These Times. Written towards the end of his life and published in 2005, these ruminations on politics, humor, and life in general are startling in their relevance almost 20 years later. With this characteristic dry sarcastic wit, Vonnegut bemoans climate change (then called global warming) and the rampant corruption and warmongering of the George W. Bush administration. God only knows what he would have said about our current state of environmental disaster and the Trump crime family who make W., Cheney, and their cronies look like Sunday school teachers. (And what's really scary is that a huge swatch of the gullible public actually want Trumpy back in power. That's a whole Vonnegut essay right there. In fact, Trump could be a Vonnegut character he's so over the top.) The author's probably rolling in this grave and if he could jump out of it, he'd scream at all of us, "I told ya so! Geez, I didn't think things could get much worse when I passed, but you morons managed to do it!" Vonnegut is merciless in his castigation of humanity for ruining our planet and putting ignorant "guessers" in power over scientists and wise men who follow logic instead of passions.

There are also biographical segments on his childhood, war experiences, struggles to gain a foothold as an author, and his current life in Manhattan. In the latter, he laments how technology has eliminated the simple joys of taking a walk to the corner newsstand to buy stamps, then to the post office to mail a manuscript to a typist, and meeting and talking with fellow humans along the way. Email and computers had destroyed typewriters and community. But at the same time Vonnegut doesn't pine for the "good old days." He objectively states that there were no "good old" times, just times and we should relish whatever joys we can such as just sitting with friends and drinking lemonade as his favorite uncle advised.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Book Review: Bagombo Snuff Box

(Borrowed from the Mid-Manhattan NYPL on 40th St. and Fifth Ave.) After viewing that documentary on Vonnegut on Hulu, I launched a binge on so-far unread works by the author I've been reading since high school (or maybe junior high, I can't recall.) A plentiful collection of previously uncollected stories from Vonnegut's early days as a writer, eking out a living at a variety of jobs including car salesman and PR wordsmith for General Electric. From the 50s into the early 60s, a number of magazines published short stories by unknowns (Now the New Yorker is one of the few left, and they generally employ known quantities.) Each is a little gem with a twist ending (In an afterward, Vonnegut admits he rewrote three of them for this collection.) Most are humorous satires of human behavior, subdivision small town dreamers. Only two (Thanasphere and 2BR02B) display the dark science-fiction bent of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, Sirens of Titan, and Player Piano. The formula many follow has an objective narrator, either a real-estate man or a financial consultant injected into the bizarre world of absent-minded geniuses, small-time con men and women or obsessive ketchup consultants. My favorites were Any Reasonable Offer (very funny), Runaways (insightful dissection of shallow teenagers and their clueless parents), and Hal Irwin's Magic Lamp (a wallop of a story on clashing values along class and racial lines). Looking forward to the other Vonnegut collections of fiction, essays and letters.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

B'way Update: Cast for Mother Play; Death Becomes Her

Jessica Lange will star in
Paula Vogel's Mother Play.
Casting and dates have been announced for Mother Play by Paula Vogel (Indecent, How I Learned to Drive) to open this coming spring at Second Stage's Hayes Theater. Tony and Drama Desk winner Celia Keenan-Bolger (To Kill a Mockingbird), Oscar, Emmy and Tony winner Jessica Lange (Long Day's Journey Into Night), and Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG winner Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) will star in the world premiere directed by Tony nominee and Drama Desk winner Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants the Musical). Previews begin April 2 with an April 25 opening. 

Lange will play Phyllis, a domineering matriarch supervising the move of her teenaged children Carl (Parsons) and Martha (Keenan-Bolger) into a new apartment outside Washington, DC in 1962. Phyllis has definite ideas about how her children should lead their lives. The play follows the family's rollercoaster ride through the coming years. 

In other news, Megan Hilty (Smash) and Jennifer Simard (Disaster, Once Upon a One More Time) will star in a musical version of the 1992 film comedy Death Becomes Her which starred Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, set to play Chicago's Cadillac Theater from April 30-June 2, 2024. The new musical, which has its sights set on Broadway, features a score by Noel Carey and Julia Mattison, book by Marco Pennette and direction by Christopher Gattelli (Newsies). Simard plays Helen, a writer whose husband has an affair with her former friend Madeline (Hilty), a glamorous movie star. As Helen plots her revenge against Madeline, the stakes becomes higher when both partake of a mysterious potion granting them eternal youth and beauty. 
Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in
Death Becomes Her.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Cutting the Cable Cord, Part 5

Only Murders in the Building with
Selena Gomez, Steve Martin
and Martin Short
Credit: Hulu
The last blog post about Cutting the Cable Cord (Part 4) was written in Jan. 2016. That was the first time our household experimented with cutting cable. We eventually re-attached Spectrum, the lure was just too strong. But now we have severed the connection again for two reasons: 1) our monthly bill for phone, internet and three cable boxes with DVR was over $300 monthly; and 2) streaming services have gotten much more sophisticated and inclusive of most of the networks TWC Spectrum provided. Another reason has popped up in the past week: 3) Spectrum is in a dispute with ABC and their various Disney channels, just as they were in a battle with CBS a few years ago--chronicled here in a blog post from 2013. So Spectrum has apparently cut off ABC. That spat will probably be resolved soon, but the first two considerations still loom large.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Book Review: The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism and the State of American Politics After 2020

(Taken out of the Jackson Heights Library) Jonathan Lemire is a familiar face and welcome presence for his appearances on Morning Joe and his tough questions for Trump as a reporter for Politico and the Associated Press. His book on Trump's endless mendacities is valuable in that its a fairly detailed record of the past seven years beginning with Trump's 2016 statement that the upcoming presidential election would be rigged if he doesn't win. I didn't learn anything I didn't already know and there is a lack of independent interviews (Most quotes are from other books.) But a good summary of Trump's efforts to discredit our election system when it didn't go his way, plus his history of an extremely loose relationship with the truth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Thoughts on 2024, Trump and the Fate of Democracy

On Jan. 6, 2021, if you told me that we'd be where we are today, I wouldn't have believed you. Well, maybe I would since our current political mess derives from the gullibility and blindness of a big swatch of the American voting public. About 30 percent still believes Trump's huge lies about the 2020 presidential election being rigged against him and that he did absolutely nothing wrong, legally, ethically, or morally in its aftermath. 

But here we are with the very real possibility that the Cheeto Julius Caesar could return to office in 2024. It's not impossible. Biden's age, voter indifference and whatever the shiny object of the moment will be next November could combine to propel Trumpy back into the White House. Hopefully that won't happen, but it's not out of the question.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 42: Paley Center Visits 4 & 5

In the waning days of summer, I was able to make two brief visits to the Paley Center here in NYC in order to catch up on their archival collection of Carol's two series subsequent to the end of her long-running variety show. They had all four episodes of Carol Burnett and Company (1979) and some eps of Carol and Company (1990-1).

Carol Burnett and Company
Aug. 18, 1979: Cheryl Ladd

Carol with Cheryl Ladd on Carol Burnett and
Company (1979)
The first of Carol's four summer shows begins with her farewell speech for the last show of the 1967-78 CBS series. She talks about moving on from variety and how change is growth. Cut to Carol in 1979: "So I changed my mind." She explains the plan of this new ABC series is to do four shows for the summer and hopefully do it every August like summer camp. (Unfortunately, ABC opted out after one year and CBS decided to go with the Tim Conway Show instead.) This series is like an extension of the original with much of the same personnel (Carol's husband Joe Hamilton producing, Tim and Vicki, Peter Matz as music director, and many of the same chorus dancers. Craig Richard Nelson and Kenneth Mars sub for Harvey. The writing staff was reduced and joined by Ann Elder, formerly of Laugh-In and Emmy winner for her contributions to Lily Tomlin's specials.)

The first sketch is a reunion of Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins dealing with the energy crisis. Tim as Tudball mocks a poster of President Jimmy Carter for forcing him to cut back on electricity. Carol as Mrs. Wiggins almost gets herself fired for slow shorthand, general incompetence and asking for the afternoon off. (When asked why she wants to skip work, Wiggins answers, "I'm out of gas and I'm odd," referring to the national plan that drivers should get gas on odd or even days.) But she catches Tudball running an illegal fan and blackmails him into letting her keep her job. 

Friday, August 25, 2023

B'way Update: Noise Adds Thurs. Matinees, etc.

A Beautiful Noise with Will Swenson and cast
will now play four matinees per week.
A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond bio-musical at the Broadhurst, has been flagging at the box office and will now play four matinees a week instead of three. Beginning Sept. 6, in addition to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, the company will perform on Thursday afternoons, eliminating Wednesday evenings. Noise opened Dec. 4, 2022 and received no Tony nominations....Once Upon a One More Time, the Britney Spears fairy-tale musical, has posted a closing notice of Sept. 3 at the Marquis Theater. The show opened on June 22 and will have played 42 previews and 81 performances. Plans are underway for national and international tours....The Encores series of concert performances of revived musicals at New York City Center will go to two weeks of performances instead of a weekend's worth. Encores' 2024 season will consist of a new staging of Once Upon a Mattress with Sutton Foster directed by Encores' artistic director Lear de Bessonet (Jan. 24--Feb. 3); Jelly's Last Jam (Feb. 21-March 3); and Titanic (June 12-23).... Josh Groban returned to Sweeney Todd at the Lunt-Fontanne on Aug. 24 after testing negative for COVID-19. His co-star Annaleigh Ashford, also recovering from COVID-19, is scheduled to return after Aug. 25 while her standby Jeanna de Waal continues as Mrs. Lovett.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

B'way Update: Outsiders Musical, Vineyard Season

Cast members of The Outsiders
at La Jolla Playhouse
Credit: Rich Soublet II
A new musical based on The Outsiders,  S.E. Hinton's young-adult
 novel about rival teen gangs in 1967 Oklahoma, will be opening on Broadway this spring after a world premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse in Feb.-March of this year. Oscar winner Angelina Jolie will be among the lead producers. Previews begin March 16 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater prior to an April 11 opening. Danya Taymor (Pass Over) directs. 

The Outsiders is regarded as a classic in young-adult literature and has been named by BBC News as one of the 100 most influential novels and was voted one of 100 Best Loved Novels in PBS' Great American Read. Francis Ford Coppola directed the 1983 film version which made stars out of Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane. There was also a short-lived TV series in 1990.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Book Review: We Are What We Pretend to Be

(Borrowed from the Jackson Heights Library, along with God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian) Published in 2012, Vonnegut passed away in 2007. An early unpublished short story, Basic Training, and an unfinished novel, called If God Were Alive Today, along with a foreward by the author's daughter Nanette. Both are emblematic of their periods in Vonnegut's writing life. The earlier story is elegantly and soundly written, but a little to neatly tied up at the end. An teen aspiring pianist is sent to live with an authoritarian uncle on the latter's rural farm after his cosmopolitan parents are killed in an auto accident. Hard life lessons are learned, hearts are broken, metaphorical horses and cars play a big part. The young Vonnegut displays an expert craftsmanship in structuring the story. The ending is too tidy with everyone getting their just deserts which seldom occurs outside of fiction.

The second piece shows Vonnegut's progression into the dark satire for which he become renowned in the late 1960s and '70s with Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The central character is Gil Berman, a stand-up comic like Lenny Bruce and Vonnegut himself who dispenses uncomfortable truths in the form of wisecracks. This fragment is funny and details the comic's encounter with a deranged fan at a performance in Northhampton, Mass. We also are treated to Gil's visits to mental hospitals. A transcript of a session with a female pscyhiatrit reads like a Marx Brother routine. 

The two stories together show Vonnegut's progression from easy satisfying fiction to dangerous cynical commentary. It made me think of the main character in Bluebeard, the artist who gives up realistic portraiture for abstract expression. When his furious wife asks why can't be just paint pretty pictures everyone can understand and relate to (and therefore make more money) instead of the weird challenging, unprofitable material he's been churning out, he replies, "Because that's too easy." It was too easy for Vonnegut to make simple stories. The harder stuff was what he wanted to write.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Book Review: God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

(Taken out of the Jackson Heights library) From Jane Austen to Kurt Vonnegut is quite a leap. After watching a documentary on Vonnegut's life on Hulu, I found this slim volume at my local library. Many years ago I started reading Vonnegut (probably in high school, maybe junior high, I can't remember). I have completed all of the novels, but not the shorter, later essays and uncollected stories. I even met him once at a film critics' awards ceremony where I told him how much I enjoyed Galapagos, his most recent book at the time. He was very nice. This is a collection of short pieces (many only one page) imagining Vonnegut as a reporter from the after-life for public radio station WNYC. The titular real-life doctor who famously specialized in assisted suicide sends the author to the other side where he interviews dead people and then returns to life. Very brief, funny, full of Vonnegut's trademark sharp, cynical wit.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

(Read on my I-phone on the Libby app, digital edition borrowed from the NYPL) Another one of the 100 books the BBC says I should read before I die and this is the first time I have read a Jane Austen novel. I had seen several film and TV adaptations of Austen's original so it was fascinating to compare them to the original. As I suspected, Lady Catherine does not barge into the Bennett household in the middle of the night as she did in the 2005 version. (She arrives in the afternoon in the book.) Neither does she make up with Darcy right away and overcome her objections to his engagement to Elizabeth as she does in the 1940 MGM Hollywood version. The original is also much harsher on Elizabeth's parents. In the various film adaptations, they are well-meaning but bungling. Austen portrays them as dangerously naive, foolish and empty-headed. Worst of all, their marriage is one of misalliance.

Austen's classic is just as much about manners, protocol, and finance as it is about romance, offering a snapshot of upper-middle class British life in the early 19th century. The tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is palpable and you do feel great relief when they finally get together. The characterizations and dialogue are rich, especially of Darcy and Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennett and the flighty daughter Lydia. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 41: All 3 Mattresses

Once Upon a Mattress
is the satirical fairy-tale musical that put Carol on the map. The show with music by Mary Rodgers (Richard's daughter), lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer began life as a one-act at the Tamiment summer camp and then expanded for a full-length show opening Off-Broadway in 1959, directed by the legendary George Abbott. It later transferred to Broadway, playing several different theaters, racking up a total of 470 performances. In a daring bit of casting, African-American actress Jane White brilliantly played the wicked queen and repeated her performance in two of the TV versions. A popular choice for high school and community theater, I worked backstage on a production at the Barn Playhouse in Jeffersonville, PA, pushing the mile-high mattresses on and offstage. A 1996 Broadway revival starred Sarah Jessica Parker and an Off-Broadway one in 2015 starred Jackie Hoffman and Jon Epperson (aka Lypsinka). Sutton Foster is scheduled to headline an Encores! presentation Jan. 24-28, 2024. There were three different TV versions, the first two headlined by Carol in her original role of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. The role cemented Carol's early persona as a boisterous, belting comedienne, not conventionally attractive and always man-hungry.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 40: The Specials

Before, during and after her variety series, Carol headlined a series of specials available as bonus features on DVD collections or on YouTube.

Carol + 2
March 22, 1966: Lucille Ball, Zero Mostel
(Released on DVD on Carol +2: The Original Queens of Comedy, and as a Special Bonus Feature on The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes Box Set)
Lucy and Carol in the
Chutzpah musical number
in Carol + 2
This is sort of a pilot that CBS ran to see if Carol could carry a hour-long variety show but they insisted she have two top-tier guest stars to guarantee big ratings. Lucy was under contract to CBS to do at least a few specials in addition to her regular series The Lucy Show. Mostel had starred on Broadway and won Tonys for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, and the film of Forum was out this year. 

The hour begins with weird, mechanical music (it sounds like a 1960s idea of a computer spinning its tapes) and an announcer introducing the three principals as the camera zooms in on giant caricatures of each. Carol enters and lavishly praises her two guests. Like a bull or rhinoceros in a china shop, Zero breaks up the pleasantries by saying these self-congratulatory intros are ridiculous (Zero played a man who turns into a rhino in Ionesco's play). What if plumbers behaved the same way ("Oh, Irving what a lovely wrench. Is that a new plunger?") He suggests they shut up and get to work.

The first sketch features Carol and Zero as a bickering couple celebrating their tenth anniversary who rediscover their passion for each other when it seems they've never been legally married. The two master comics milk the physical and facial gestures for all they're worth. Zero's face changes from a blank stare to a devilish leer as he realizes his wife is now a single girl and the audience applauds. Carol is equally exaggerated in her horny reactions to Zero's offstage singing of love songs as she dons a revealing negligee. After the sketch, Carol sings in her character, "You're My Reason" written by MItzi Welch to a sleeping Zero. 

In "Goodbye Baby," Lucille and Carol are sisters quarreling over Carol's baby. Lucy urgently needs to catch a bus, but Carol strongly insists she not leave until the infant says goodbye. Zero then recreates his performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof with "If I Were a Rich Man." After a commercial break (you can see the commercials on YouTube), there's a brief sketch with Zero as a psychiatrist listening to Carol describe her brother who thinks he's a frog. Carol scratches her nose and Zero writes it down as a nervous tic. The central joke is Carol then spending the rest of the scene desperately trying not to scratch her nose, turning pratfalls and falling off the couch. Carol next sings a slow ballad version of "Wait Til the Sun Shines, Nelly." The set-up is she's a wardrobe mistress named Nelly in one of Hugh Hefner's Bunny Clubs, warbling of her thwarted attempts at romance with Zero as the club's bartender. Bunny clubs were exploitative nightclubs with women in skimpy outfits and rabbits ears serving drinks to sloshed tired businessmen.

The hour concludes with Carol and Lucy as cleaning ladies pretending to be show-biz big shots as they dust, mop and collect half-finished cigarettes at the William Morris Agency. When Carol doubts her illusions, Lucy peps her up with the specialty number "Chutzpah" by Ken Welch which sounds a lot like "Hey, Look Me Over" from Lucy's Broadway show Wildcat. The choreography is energetic and the two look like they're having fun. Before the end, Carol pitches sponsor American Motors' safety record. We get a second of Carol saying good night to the studio audience and asking them to watch the show when it's on the air to up the ratings.

The DVD Original Queens of Comedy also includes the 1972 version of Carol in Once Upon a Mattress, the 1959 musical fairy tale which made her a star on and Off-Broadway. I'll cover that show along with the other two televised versions in a later blog post.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

B'way Update: Notebook Musical

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and
Jordan Tyson in the Chicago production
of The Notebook.
Credit: Liz Lauren 
The 2023-24 Broadway season is shaping up. Yesterday, we learned of the Spamalot revival transferring to the St. James and now comes word that a musical version of The Notebook, Nicholas Spark's best-selling novel which became a beloved 2005 film starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands, is slated for the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. Previews are scheduled to begin Feb. 6, 2024 with an opening of March 14. The show had a critically-acclaimed run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the fall of 2022. 

The score is by multi-platinum singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson with a book by Bekah Brunstetter (NBC's This Is Us). Michael Greif (Rent, Dear Evan Hansen) and Schele Williams (Aida, The Wiz) direct. The storyline follows the 50-year romance of Noah and Allie told in flashback as Noah reads from the titular notebook to an elderly Allie who is suffering from dementia. In Brunstetter's book, the story begins in the 1960s rather than the 1940s. Noah and Allie are played by three different sets of actors who embody them at different ages. Casting will be announced at a later date.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

B'way Update: Spamalot Gallops to the St. James; Readings and Regional

Alex Brightman, James Monroe Iglehart,
Matthew Saldivar and the cast of Spamalot 
at the Kennedy Center. (Credit: Jeremy Daniel)
The Knights Who Say Ni, The Killer Rabbit, King Arthur and Patsy and all the other medieval maniacs are galloping back to Broadway. The Kennedy Center production of Monty Python's Spamalot will arrive at the St. James Theater with previews starting Oct. 31 and opening Nov. 16. Josh Rhodes (Bright Star, Cinderella) will repeat his direction and choreography from the Kennedy Center production. 

Based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for 1,575 performances, winning three Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Mike Nichols, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Sara Ramirez. Eric Idle adapted the screenplay which he co-wrote with other members of the Python troupe, as well as writing the lyrics and co-writing the music with John Du Prez. 

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Book Review: Chess

Also known as The Royal Game. Bought at the Museum Shop at the Agora in Izmir, Turkey for 59 Turkish Lire or about $2 US. Stefan Zweig's compact novella (80 pages) pits a savant chess master against an Austrian refugee who studied the game obsessively while being held prisoner by the Nazis. Zweig was also an escapee from the Third Reich and committed suicide with his wife in 1942 after they had emigrated to Brazil. The heart of the piece is Dr. B.'s description of his captivity and how he managed to outlast the Nazi interrogators by focusing on chess. He plays against Czentovic, an oafish tradesman's son who happens to be a natural chess master. Zweig examines how obsessions can save us, but also harm us. Dr. B and Czentovic meet on a ship and are drawn into a game by curious fellow passengers. The former is driven nearly mad with the desire to win and his mania nearly destroys him. Compelling and impactful, like a short, sharp shock (to paraphrase WS Gilbert). 

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show, Part 39: Carol, Harvey and Vicki on The Tim Conway Show

Tim with the Village
People on his 
short-lived 1980 variety series
Despite winning two Emmys for his work on the Carol Burnett Show and being nominated for McHale's Navy, Tim Conway had a terrible track record when it came to headlining his own TV show. He had two failed sitcoms, Wrongo, a spoof western, and The Tim Conway Show, as well as a variety series in 1970 (The Tim Conway Comedy Hour). The fourth time was not a charm for Conway with his second attempt at a variety series (with the same title as his previous sitcom, The Tim Conway Show). There were many jokes that the show was the Carol Burnett Show without Carol (which is why we are including it in this series of blogs). It had the same producer (Carol's then-husband Joe Hamilton), orchestra and music director (Peter Matz), and the choreographer Don Creighton was the lead dancer on Carol's show. The Tim Conway Show premiered on March 22, 1980 and played until May 17. When it returned in the fall of 1980, the running time was reduced from one hour to 30 mins. and Harvey Korman joined the cast as a sort of co-host since he and Tim had such great chemistry on Carol's show. 

Tim, Joe and Harvey tried to recapture the magic of Carol's show but it was missing. Tim's Mr. Tudball without Carol's Mrs. Wiggins became tiresome. Even though Harvey was there for some of the show, the Old Man bit was also repetitive. There was some funny material such as the recurring audience-participation sketches where real-life members of the studio audience would participate in a scene reading cue cards with Tim (probably the best segment in the series). The Don Creighton Dancers were a troupe of kids performing as if they were adults which was kind of fun. Jack Riley (best known as the neurotic Mr. Carlton on The Bob Newhart Show) was an effective regular for a while, but was removed after May of 1980. Here's a rundown of Tim Conway Show episodes featuring Carol, Harvey and Vicki (available on YouTube).

Friday, July 28, 2023

B'way/Off-B'way Update: Star Casting with Paulson, Plaza, Shannon, etc.

Sarah Paulson
Emmy, SAG and Golden Globe winner Sarah Paulson (American Crime Story) will return to the New York stage in the Broadway premiere of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, with previews beginning Nov. 28 in advance of a Dec. 18 opening at the Hayes Theater in a Second Stage production. She last appeared Off-Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company's 2013 revival of Talley's Folly, and previously on Broadway in Collected Stories, The Glass Menagerie and The Sisters Rosensweig. Appropriate, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 at Signature Theater, centers on a white family making a horrifying discovery while closing the estate of their late father. Paulson is also slated to star in a film version of Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Book Review: Less

Bought at the Strand for $10 and read mostly on an 10-hour flight from Istanbul to Frankfurt to JFK. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize which was a motivator for me to read it. That and its brevity (I was looking for an absorbing read during a vacation.) Amusing and detailed, this novel follows a gay white male about to turn 50, taking stock of his life as he travels around the world on a series of opportune writing assignments and left-handed invitations from friends of friends, all to avoid the wedding of his ex. Arthur Less is endearing and charming. It's hard to dislike him but it's equally hard to muster any sympathy for him. Ironically, his latest novel has been rejected by his long-time publisher for those very reasons--the protagonist has first-world problems. I mean how many of us would kill to have Less's kind of life--a nice house in San Francisco, a first marriage to a world famous poet, and a trip around the world, gratis! So Greer is making fun of himself. When Less turns his novel into a comedy, that supposedly unblocks him creatively and emotionally. The writing is funny and strong with wonderful descriptions of the various locales in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The opening chapter is particularly funny with its comedy of errors as Less prepares to interview a famous sci-fi author (probably modeled on Games of Thrones' George R.R. Martin) who is suffering from food poisoning. Funny and fast and eventually I warmed up to Less but I didn't feel badly for him.

Friday, July 21, 2023

B'way Update: Sondheim, Ohio, etc.

IATSE, the union representing backstage technicians and craftspeople, and the Broadway League and Disney have reached a tentative agreement, awaiting ratification of the rank and file union members, thereby averting a possible strike and shutdown of Broadway and touring shows. After heaving a sigh of relief, let's catch up on all the Broadway and Off-Broadway news that perked up while I was on vacation in Greece and Turkey:

Sondheim Show Announces Cast and Dates: Here We Are, the final show to boast a score by the late
David Hyde Pierce will
star in Here We Are,
the last Sondheim musical
coming to Off-B'way this fall.
Credit: Joan Marcus

Stephen Sondheim, will begin previews at the Shed's Griffin Theater on Sept. 28 with an opening set for Oct. 22. Derived from two Luis Bunuel classic films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the show features a book by David Ives (All in the Timing) and direction by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello. The all-star cast includes Obie winner Francois Battiste (The Good Negro, A Raisin in the Sun), Drama Desk winner Tracie Bennett (End of the Rainbow), Drama Desk and Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale (The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Boardwalk Empire, Will and Grace), Michaela Diamond (Parade), Amber Gray (Hadestown), Ja Hin (M. Butterfly), Tony winner Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen, Pippin), Tony and Drama Desk winner Denis O'Hare (Take Me Out, Sweet Charity), Drama Desk winner Steven Pasquale (Reasons to Be Pretty, The Bridges of Madison County), Tony and Emmy winner David Hyde Pierce (Curtains, Frasier), and Tony nominee Jeremy Shamos (Clybourne Park).

Ohio Musical to Open on Broadway: Seven autistic actors will be making their Broadway debuts in the new musical How to Dance in Ohio, set to begin previews Nov. 15 at the Belasco Theater in advance of a Dec. 10 opening. Based on Alexandra Shiva's 2015 HBO documentary, the musical focuses on a group of autistic young adults at an Ohio counseling center as they prepare for a
The cast of How to Dance in Ohio.
Credit: Curtis Brown

formal dance. The show premiered at Syracuse Stage in 2022 and features music by Jacob Yandura and book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik, who are also making their Broadway debuts. Director Sammi Cannold is also a first-timer for the Main Stem.

Graciela Daniele Bio-Musical at LCT: Lincoln Center Theater will present a new musical, The Gardens of Anuncia, based on the early life of Broadway director-choreographer Graciela Daniele in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, beginning previews Oct. 19 and opening Nov. 20. Daniele directs and co-choreographs with Alex Sanchez, Michael-John LaChuisa (The Wild Party, Hello Again, Marie Christine) writes the book, music and lyrics. The musical opens with Anuncia (Tony winner Priscilla Lopez) in her garden, reflecting on her girlhood in Juan Peron's Argentina and the family members who inspired her to be a stage artist. The cast also includes Enrique Acevedo, Andrea Burns (In the Heights), Eden Espinosa (Rent, Wicked), Tally Sessions, Tony nominee and Obie and Drama Desk winner Mary Testa (First Daughter Suite, On the Town, 42nd Street), and Kalyn West. The musical premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in 2021 just before Daniele received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
A scene from The Gardens of Anuncia
at the Old Globe Theater.
Credit: Jim Cox

Thursday, July 20, 2023

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 5: Istanbul and Frankfurt Airport

Mon. July 17--Istanbul
The elegant lobby of the Intercontinental
Hotel in Istanbul
We regretfully checked out of the Sirena cruise ship this morning--though ten days is about enough for a cruise--and after a loooong walk through passport control, got on our transfer bus to the Intercontinental Hotel in Istanbul. The cruise was wonderful and I highly recommend Oceania Cruise Lines which organized everything with helpful staff pointing us in the right direction otherwise we would have been totally lost. The Intercontinental is a gorgeous, elegant, modern hotel with a spacious lobby out of a science fiction movie. The stairway alone is worth the high price of a room. It looks like Mame or Dolly should be walking down its steps for the big production number.

We had one full day in the Turkish capital and decided to take a cruise of the bosphorus (where Vickie Edyie gets preposterous, if recall that bit from Bette Midler's Live album). Our guide Mehmet was fun and informative. We stopped at the Spice Market, sampling Turkish taffy and candy. This crowded bazaar was not as chaotic and overwhelming as the
Spice Market

Grand Bazaar we had been to on our last visit. It was remarkable for its colorful displays and non-aggressive salesmen. Then we took our cruise on the bosphorus with Mehmet providing commentary. At one point, I had a picture taken as we approached a bridge to show we were between Europe and Asia. 

Back at the hotel, we got a dinner recommendation from the concierge for a local place that had authentic food. The cuisine was adequate, but the views of the river were spectacular with seagulls hovering nearby. We went to bed after watching CNN International and EuroNews. It was so refreshing not to be bombarded with internal US political news and the ongoing Trump shit show. The main story was the heat wave engulfing Europe and the United States. Pavements and streets were actually burning people and forest fires continued to blaze. Heat domes and pizza ovens were used to describe the effect. This staggering heat is becoming the new normal and will continue to create crises as parts of the world become uninhabitable.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Book Review: Our Missing Hearts

Bought the hardback at the Strand for $12.50 and read during my cruise of Greece and Turkey. Yet another dystopian near-future novel, felt kinda familiar after so many similar works by Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro. Ng is clearly influenced by recent events involving anti-Asian hate crimes and the MAGA movement. Twelve-year-old Bird is growing up in an oppressive America where any dissent with the government is severely punished and children can be taken from their parents for the slightest infraction. Bird's mom, a poet whose work has inspired some unpopular protests, disappeared three years ago and the action centers on the kid finding her. Suspenseful and chilling, but too much like Atwood's vision of a dictatorial future.

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 4: Kavala, Limnos

Sat., July 15--Kavala

Kavala's idea of public transportation.
At least it was free.
This was a down day, meaning no strenuous activity. It was just too hot as all of Europe became a pizza oven. All the news reports gave the temperature in celsius so it doesn't sound too bad. But when you convert it, the mercury reaches triple digits and to quote Cole Porter, it's too darned hot. We went shopping in the town of Kavala and bought several shirts, then had a snack at a coffee place of which there are hundreds. Jerry went back to the ship and I wandered around the seafront, eventually finding a cute little train for free. There is not narration or tourist information, it just climbs the steep, narrow streets up the mountain. Locals use it for public transportation to get to their home high up. I caught the last one at 1300 or 1 pm in American time. The whole ride was 20 minutes up the hills and back to the town square, with stops at the usual castle, fort, amphitheater, etc. No guide, no context, just up the winding, twisting streets not much wider than alleyways. It was something to do and I saw some great views but too may other people blocked me for a good picture.